A recent attack on a prison in Syria and a massacre of Iraqi soldiers have left many fearing ISIS may soon resurface in search of power
Since the loss of its caliphate in 2018, after an intense four-year US-led air war, ISIS paramilitaries in Iraq and Syria have been relatively quiet. That is hardly surprising given the intensity of the West's Operation Inherent Resolve, which involved 30,000 air attacks and 100,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles, killing at least 60,000 ISIS supporters, as well as thousands of civilians.
What is surprising, however, is how extreme Islamist paramilitaries, many of whom are loosely linked to ISIS or al-Qaida, have since thrived across the Sahel and North Africa, as well as down to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and across into Afghanistan. Even in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has far from disappeared, with frequent attacks on security forces and on Shi'a communities. Now, with the violence of the past three weeks - including a massacre of Iraqi army soldiers, a huge prison break in Syria and the killing of ISIS's current leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi - the question is being raised, is ISIS heading for a third wave of violence?
To get a handle on this, we need to recall how the first two waves came about. The first was in the form of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) following the US-led invasion in 2003. Under the leadership of the brutal but effective Jordanian, Abdul Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI was for years at the core of anti-Western violence in the region. The group was eventually suppressed in 2010-11 by a highly organised multi-year operation by US and British special forces, which centred on hundreds of well-resourced night raids and intensive interrogation and torture, including prisoners held in the notorious 'dog kennels' at Balad Air Force Base.
By 2008, AQI had gone to ground, leaving thousands dead and tens of thousands detained, with al-Zarqawi himself killed in Operation Arcadia in June 2006. By 2011, when Barack Obama had ordered the withdrawal of almost all US troops from Iraq, many of the most dangerous paramilitaries had been transferred to Iraqi government custody for long-term detention.
Then came the second wave.
Enough AQI paramilitaries were left to reconstitute an insurgency and in 2012-13 they organised an extraordinary series of prison breaks, releasing more than 2,000 of the most experienced fighters in Operation Breaking the Walls. These fighters joined the core group, and AQI emerged phoenix-like from the ashes, taking over territory right across northern Syria and Iraq in a matter of months and declaring a new caliphate, ISIS, in June 2014.
By August 2016, even Baghdad seemed threatened, and Obama ordered Operation Inherent Resolve, which allowed Iraqi Army troops and Kurdish and Shi'a militias to overrun the caliphate. Four years ago, the war against ISIS seemed all over once more, though some airstrikes continued and some analysts warned that ISIS had gone to ground, with thousands of paramilitaries in Syria and Iraq biding their time.
For jihadist groups, recruiting new adherents - primarily young men with few prospects - appears to be almost as easy now as 20 years ago
So, is what we are now seeing the start of a third wave for ISIS? Did it begin on 20 January with a major attack by the group on al-Sinha prison in the eastern Syrian town of Hasakah, involving hundreds of ISIS fighters attempting to free ISIS detainees?
While most of the more than 75,000 ISIS detainees in Syria and Iraq are relatives of paramilitary fighters and are in loosely guarded camps, as many as 15,000 are suspected paramilitary veterans held in often overcrowded and under-resourced prisons, frequently in appalling conditions. These include thousands of youths, some as young as 12, who are assumed to be potential threats. Al-Sinha housed some several hundred of these youths, along with more than 4,000 ISIS paramilitaries including commanders.
Within hours of the al-Sinha raid, the attackers had taken over parts of the prison and the Pentagon was reporting that it had ordered airstrikes to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in trying to regain control. What followed was 12 days of intensive fighting, which involved regular US Army units and Bradley armoured vehicles and, according to unofficial sources, both US and British Special Forces.
The fighting extended to nearby buildings in Hasakah, and it became clear that the attack had been a long-planned operation involving personnel from activated sleeper cells, the construction of tunnels and the accumulation of explosives and machine guns. What's more, the assault was paralleled by another ISIS attack in Iraq, this time on an army barracks, where 11 soldiers were killed as they slept.
At the time of writing, it appears that up to 500 people were killed during the attempted al-Sinha prison break, including around 120 prison officers and security forces. Close to 380 attackers and ISIS detainees, including some boys, were killed, with many of the detainees having taken up arms to aid the escape.
What is not certain is how many prisoners were released, with suggestions ranging from a handful to several hundred - though the general consensus is that there were likely less than 100 escapees, meaning the attack did not succeed in its main aim of releasing large numbers of the most experienced paramilitary prisoners. Even so, it was by far the largest ISIS attack in Syria or Iraq since the fall of the caliphate in 2016 and is raising concerns over the re-emergence of ISIS in the coming years.
That potential resurgence may have been hindered by the killing of the current ISIS leader, the reclusive Qurayshi, by US special forces at his base close to the Turkish border in north-western Syria on 3 February. But ISIS has been organised in a very dispersed form in recent years, with much local autonomy, so the replacement of the leadership is no doubt already in hand.
While there is little prospect of a third wave of ISIS power at the level of 2014 in Iraq and Syria, the group is not only not going away, but there are factors in both the Middle East and Africa that are working in its favour. Across the Sahel, there has been a flurry of coups and counter-coups, directed primarily at political elites who are despised for their greed, incompetence and failure to respond to the increasing power of Jihadist militias, including those linked to ISIS.
Meanwhile, substantial parts of northern Iraq are largely ungoverned because of long-term tensions between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish communities in the north, while in Syria contested areas are even more extensive. In such circumstances, ISIS thrives and can more easily recruit followers, especially disgruntled young men. Furthermore, a key part of Qurayshi's strategy was to have the movement adopt a low profile as it quietly built up its capabilities, financial resources, and a new cadre of followers.
The group may not have anything like the potential to regain a physical caliphate in the short term and is more likely to bide its time and wait for better opportunities. Meanwhile, there is already more opportunity for its expansion across Africa, as well as back in Afghanistan, helped by two factors that are easily forgotten. One is the defeat of the US and its allies in Afghanistan, a powerful reminder of what persistence can lead to, which is an inspiration for ISIS, al-Qaida and other such movements.
The other is more important and long-lasting: the increased marginalisation of many millions of young people across the Global South, especially, but not only, in much of Africa. That impoverishment and marginalisation are being exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been made worse by the appallingly slow rate of vaccination in many of the poorer countries. This has provided is an opportunity for recruitment to the cause that many extremist leaders will see as just too good to miss. We may not yet be facing a third wave of ISIS, but there is certainly a gathering swell.
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